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U.K. Storms Unearth Bones From Historic Scottish Cemetery—and Archaeologists Are Worried

The burial site, which contains remains from both the Picts and the Norse, is at risk of disappearing due to coastal erosion

Volunteers have placed sandbags along the beach in hopes of preventing further flooding. (Amanda Brend / University of the Highlands and Islands)
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A series of storms battering the United Kingdom recently unearthed human bones from a 1,500-year-old cemetery on the Orkney Islands, an archipelago that sits off the northeastern coast of Scotland. Normally, this would spark interest among archaeologists. But as STV News reports, experts are now racing to stop the site from being entirely swept away.

The cemetery sits on the coastal site of Newark Bay and has been known to archaeologists for some time. According to Tom Metcalfe of Live Science, 250 skeletons were removed from the site 50 years ago; hundreds more are still thought to be buried there.

In use from at least 550 to 1450 A.D., the cemetery covers two key periods of habitation on Orkney: first by the Picts, a confederation of tribes that once dominated northern Scotland, and then by Norse Vikings, who began to colonize Orkney in the eighth century.

Soft boulder clay makes up the landscape along this windswept coast, and erosion due to the elements is an ongoing concern. According to the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA), both structural and human remains have been lost in the decades since the site was first excavated.

“[W]ith the continual procession of bad weather we have experienced in the past few months, the site is under constant threat of further destruction,” explains Pete Higgins, senior project manager at ORCA, to STV News.

The human remains revealed by recent storms will be collected and moved to a safe location. Local volunteers, along with staff and students from the University of the Highlands and Islands, are keeping an eye on the cemetery and have laid sandbags to prevent further flooding.

“We know that the sandbags are not the answer to protecting the site in the long term,” says the university in a statement, “but they provide some protection.”

Archaeologists are particularly interested in the Newark cemetery because it may hold insights on an important transitional period. The presence of Norse people on the islands is well documented—by the end of the ninth century, a Norse settlement was firmly established in the area—but the nature of the takeover is unclear.

No records left by ordinary Picts who were colonized by the Vikings exist, but Scandinavian sources suggest that Orkney may have been deserted by the time the invaders arrived—or, alternatively, that it was violently purged of its inhabitants. A lack of battle sites on the islands, however, has led some to conclude that Orkney’s indigenous peoples integrated, relatively peacefully, into the culture of the colonizers.

The cemetery offers “one of the few opportunities we’ve got to investigate” this little-understood chapter of Scottish history, Higgins tells Live Science. Last year, ORCA announced that it had secured funding to study the hundreds of skeletons that have already been extracted from the cemetery—a project that will include genetic testing of the bones.

Salvaging the site from further erosion continues to be a priority. Efforts have involved bolstering the area with sandbags and rocks, as well as covering exposed bones with clay to protect them. Sometimes, Higgins tells Live Science, the best way to safeguard the skeletal remains is to remove them from the site after recording their position. Without ongoing work to protect it, says Higgins to STV News, this centuries-old cemetery could disappear “within a few short years.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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